Robert Francis “Bobby” Garcia, author of award-winning book, To Suffer Thy Comrades: How The Revolution Decimated Its Own, shares his experiences and insights on the revolution and on writing the book.
Q: Who and what inspired or urged you to join the revolutionary movement in your college years? How did you start getting involved in it?
I entered college in 1983. The country at that time was in what you might call “political ferment.” There were rallies everywhere, including inside the university campus. I was at the beginning an interested observer. And then Ninoy Aquino was assassinated, which escalated political activity even further. Thus, I was politicized – it was just a matter of being carried by the current.
Activists recruited me into the revolutionary movement. I was convinced because it made sense – society needs fixing and we, the youth, need to do something about it. I just got deeper and deeper in my commitment to the movement, increasingly neglecting my studies until I left school altogether and decided to go full-time. From a mass activist, I went underground (UG) until eventually I decided to go to the hills.
Q: How was it, meeting with your comrades and fellow purge survivors, the descendants and relatives of those who perished, and/or former CPP officials, especially in the process of making the book?
For the fellow survivors, there is always that sense of solidarity, having a shared unusual experience. Each of us has been affected differently – some were able to eventually get over the anguish, others carry the trauma to this day. In the writing of the book, many of those I reached out to have been in fact cooperative.
The ones hardest hit were the families of those who are still missing up to this day. At the beginning they did not know their relative was already dead, let alone the manner of death. Just last year, we were able to talk to a family of another victim, Frannie “Larkin” Racines, who had no clue what happened to Larkin. It was as if the tragedy was fresh, and all they wanted was to get back the remains.
Q: Recalling and writing about the events that led to and made up the purge must be a grim, painful walk down memory lane. How did you keep going?
Writing was in itself therapeutic. It helped me come to terms with the experience. Indeed, the process of recalling was a torment, but it was something that had to be done. I was able to keep going by maintaining a certain level of detachment, despite the fact that it was a first-had experience for me. I tried my best to write dispassionately. It also helped that I was able to talk to a lot of people in the process of writing. Conversation is a powerful tool not only in digging up memory, but helping one in processing a difficult experience.
Q: Aside from writing this book, what else helped you heal from the incident?
Going back to “normal life,” as I have mentioned in the book. For me, that simply meant going back to my family, returning to my studies, seeking out old friends, resuming my simple old ways like reading books, watching movies, drinking with friends – much of it I have somehow left behind when I went full-time.
Q: More than 15 years have passed since the book was first published, how has the search operations – both for the remains of the perished victims and for justice – progressed since?
Slow and agonizing. We are still much too far from justice and healing. The problem is the war is still raging between the CPP-NPA-NDF and the government. Peace talks remain intractable. I think that proper reckoning and accounting, in the sense of transitional justice, will only be realized when the armed conflict is resolved and a proper peace settlement is reached.
As I wrote in an earlier paper:
We at the Peace Advocates for Truth, Healing and Justice (PATH) have continuously sought the peace negotiators’ agreement to this proposition, arguing that a peace settlement would not be complete without a proper reckoning of past injustices. The Parties (in the peace talks) found this a difficult proposition at the stage of negotiation – accountability for past violations may get in the way of peace settlements. Nevertheless, PATH has not stopped the call, up to now as both parties under the current administration hammer out details for a possible settlement.
There are many TC examples all over the world. At the end of South Africa’s violent armed conflict against apartheid, they set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that investigated and documented atrocities committed by both the security forces and the African National Congress (ANC) rebels. Meanwhile, the Truth and Justice Commission that was set up after the successful peace settlement in El Salvador did the same. The difference in both models is that the South African one provided for amnesty among the perpetrators if they would give full disclosure. The El Salvador model used the commission’s findings for successful prosecution of the lead perpetrators. (The full paper is in the Annex below.)
Q: How can you relate the anti-infiltration purges to what’s happening in the country now?
A very important question, and very difficult to answer. First off, I would like to state at the outset that I am categorically against the so-called War on Drugs, mainly because of the extrajudicial killings (EJKs) and other human rights violations being committed in its name. There are in fact similarities and parallelisms between the violent purge I have experienced and the violence that attends the current war on drugs. One, I observe a total disregard for due process – something that I personally witnessed and experienced in the revolutionary context. I know how it feels being deprived of my rights. I know what parents feel when their children are unfairly, brutally treated.
Another is the phenomenon of “othering.” The purge and the current War on Drugs both come from the same mindset and assumption: that there are certain kinds of people that deserve to be eliminated: in the case of the CPP-NPA purges, these are the supposed enemy infiltrators. For the War on Drugs, these are the drug criminals and drug users. These kinds of people do not deserve a fair shake. They are fair game, and they deserve to be killed.
The third is the tendency to snowball. The purge started with a few suspected deep-penetration agents (DPAs). From these few, the numbers of those being unfairly investigated, tortured, and executed multiplied exponentially. Until it nearly decimated the ranks of the revolutionary movement. We see the same phenomenon in the current drug war. By the sheer numbers of those being killed (an estimated 13,000 as of this writing), we see it raging uncontrollably.
Related to this is the fact that a violent mindset can be contagious. I saw it happen in the case of the purges, where decent human beings were suddenly transformed into engines of torture and killing because they were somehow persuaded that it was “the right thing to do,” so long as it was done to that undeserving “other.” Increasingly, we see this infection among the police and spreading out into so-called vigilante groups – the practice of killing with extreme prejudice, and getting away with it, is alarmingly becoming the norm.
Q: It’s great to know that an organization such as PATH (Peace Advocates for Truth, Healing, and Justice) exists to provide support especially for those who have survived and those who lost their loved ones to the purge. Can you tell us more about the group?
Peace Advocates for Truth, Healing, and Justice (PATH) is a self-organized community of torture survivors, victims’ relatives and friends, and human rights advocates. The issue that PATH is carrying is peculiar in that it involves the horrendous acts committed by the CPP-NPA-NDF against its own members in the 1980s. Specifically, PATH focuses its examination on the so-called “purges” – the series of operations carried out by the CPP-NPA-NDF supposed to ferret out suspected “infiltrators” within their ranks that involved the detention, torture and execution of thousands of its own cadres.
The case of Jesse Marlow Libre is a particular case in point. In November 2005, we at PATH, with the help of forensic scientists and volunteer experts were able to exhume the remains of his parents, revolutionary couple Jesse and Nida Libre. They were falsely suspected as spies and killed by the CPP-NPA in Cebu on September 1985. The truth behind the disappearance of the young orphan Libre’s parents was withheld from him by the movement (they claimed the military killed them). It was only in 2005 when he learned the disconcerting reality upon seeing his parents’ skeletons buried together in a mountain gravesite, bearing tell-tale signs of severe torture and violent death. Thus, with the exhumation of truth comes the cry for justice. But what kind of justice and closure can be found in this case – and in thousands of other similar cases all over the country, all victims of the internal purges of the CPP-NPA in the 1980s?
In short, we are also “casualties of war,” and we consider our work as complementary to the work of human rights groups in the country who look into violations of the military and the police. Justice and accountability would not be complete if State security forces are the only ones called out for violations of fundamental human rights laws, while leaving out the non-State armed groups, which has committed equally atrocious acts in its history.
Like victims of State-perpetrated violations, we also seek justice and closure. We also realize that it is much more difficult to get this when the fight is still on. Which is why we are seeking a final resolution of the conflict, preferably a peaceful one, so that we can get into the arduous business of “dealing with the past,” of “acknowledging historical wrongs.”
This is what seems to be missing in the peace talks between the government and the communist rebels: a space for properly dealing with the past. And it is a glaring absence because in most other peace processes, including the successful ones, truth commissions have been set up as a way to right, or even simply illuminate, historical wrongs.
Q: Do you have any advice for future revolutionaries?
Perhaps to consider peace as an option. I know that our society remains a mess, and with the way things are going now it seems to be even getting uglier. We are still under elite rule, but this time under the mantle of a populist leader. But the violent option is now passe, in my book. It is no longer cool, nor romantic.
Also, do not be consumed by dogma. Change society by not adopting the ways of what you detest.
Join us for “Conversations on Peace: Book Launch of To Suffer Thy Comrades (New Edition) and Peace Updates on the Communist Front,” October 23 (Monday), from 2:30pm – 8:00pm, in the UP Center for Integrative and Development Studies Main Hall, Lower ground floor of The Bahay ng Alumni in UP Diliman.
Brought to you by the UP CIDS Program on Peace and Conflict Transformation (PCT Program), the Institute of Popular Democracy (IPD), Anvil Publishing Inc., and the Peace Advocates for Truth, Healing and Justice (PATH).
Truth Commission: a Move Forward but an Uphill Climb
The PATH Experience
“UNDO THE UNJUST: Peoples’ Dialogue in Transforming Justice”
June 19-21, 2017
Balay Mindanaw Peace Center
Upper Bulua, Cagayan de Oro City.
Robert Francis Garcia
Secretary General, Peace Advocates for Truth, Healing and Justice (PATH)
Author, “To Suffer thy Comrades: How the Revolution Decimated its Own”
The peace negotiations between the government of the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte and the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front held in Rome, Italy remain uncertain as of this writing. There is some cause for hope, but a lot more for alarm.
Talking peace with the communist rebels has been tried numerous times before – all the way back from the Aquino government after the downfall of Marcos. These past attempts at achieving a negotiated political settlement have failed, the reasons for which have always been complex and contentious. The current peace talks, meantime, seem to be different and, in many ways, unprecedented. The communist leadership, for one, has been uncharacteristically accommodating towards the government. They seem genuinely fond of newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte. While it is true that they have not really spared him from their obligatory anti-government statements, this time these statements are far less hostile and virulent. The strongest statement from the CPP thus far was its “condemnation” of Duterte’s martial law declaration for the entire Mindanao in light of the Marawi crisis. Nevertheless, the signals that emanate from their camp continue to be mixed, with Jose Maria Sison himself cautioning against an all-out attack, and practically advising his comrades to give the government a chance.
Part of the seeming “softness” towards the new government is Duterte’s apparent affinity with the movement. He proclaimed himself to be a leftist and a socialist. He appointed personalities identified with the extreme left to his Cabinet. He released top ranking community party leaders from detention. And at the outset he declared a unilateral ceasefire. There had been irritants along the way, but by and large the mutual affection stays.
In short, the peace talks itself have been facing numerous dead-ends along the way – burdened by seemingly irreconcilable differences that, at this point, do not point to any clear indication of resolution. But a successful peace settlement is something the country cannot NOT have. It is a prerequisite for true progress. It is a requirement for moving on.
A successful peace settlement will also create an opportunity to properly “deal with the past.”
I put “dealing with the past” in quotations because it is such a relevant phrase. On March 2016, I had a chance to meet former EU Ambassador Alistair McDonald who served as Chair of the Third Party Monitoring Team (TPMT) for the Bangsa Moro Basic Law (BBL). He sent me a copy of the report of the Transitional Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC). After I went through the document, I cannot help but marvel at the extent of work done in the field of transitional justice, truth, and reconciliation as an integral part of resolving the Moro conflict. “Dealing with the past” is a central theme; i.e. the past is not something that should be glossed over or forgotten in order to move on. The TJRC proposed the creation of a National Transitional Justice and Reconciliation Commission on the Bangsamoro (NTJRCB). It emphasized the need to cover all the unresolved issues of the past, including the historical injustices committed against the Moro people: the dispossession of land, rape of women, desecration and pillage of Mosques. It proposed to revisit, reexamine, and put a stamp of closure to military atrocities in the course of the anti-insurgency, such as the so-called “Jabidah massacre” and the “Malisbong massacre” in Palimbang, Sultan Kudarat. But it also did not fail to hold the Moro rebels to account for their own excesses, citing documented cases of atrocity such as those perpetrated by the Moro paramilitaries “Blackshirts” and “Barracudas,” the Patikul massacre in 1977, and the Zamboanga seige in 2013, among others.
This kind of proper regard to unresolved issues of the past, in the spirit of “transitional justice,” is an ingredient that is glaringly absent in the current peace negotiations with the CPP-NPA-NDF. It is something that we at the Peace Advocates for Truth, Healing and Justice (PATH) have been pushing for since our inception in 2003.
PATH is a self-organized community of torture survivors, victims’ relatives and friends, and human rights advocates. The issue that PATH is carrying, however, is peculiar in that it involves the horrendous acts committed by the CPP-NPA-NDF against its own members. Specifically, PATH focuses its examination on the so-called “purges” – the series of operations carried out by the CPP-NPA-NDF supposed to ferret out suspected “infiltrators” within their ranks that involved the detention, torture and execution of thousands of its own cadres.
PATH considers its work as complementary to the work of human rights groups in the country. Justice and accountability would not be complete if State security forces are the only ones called out for violations of fundamental human rights laws, while leaving out the non-State armed groups, which has committed equally atrocious acts in its history. PATH’s research thus far shows that the purges were neither isolated nor unconnected. These were launched systematically as regional operations or campaigns in the various CPP-NPA-NDF Regions and sustained throughout the ’80s.
The earliest ones happened way back 1979-1982 in the Quezon-Bicol Zone at the height of Oplan Cadena de Amor, the Marcos dictatorship’s anti-insurgency drive in the Southern Tagalog Region. The CPP-NPA-NDF responded to this military campaign through counter-offensives or defensive strikes, but it also initiated internal investigations and formed arresting teams for suspected military infiltration. Tortured and killed were around 30 cadres suspected of being “deep penetration agents” (DPAs). The Party hailed the Quezon-Bicol purge campaign a successful and propagated it to other leading Party units. This resulted in the expansive implementation of anti-DPA operations all over the country.
By the CPP’s own assessment paper after its 10th Plenum in 1992 – more than 1,500 persons were arrested and tortured, and more than 800 were killed in Kampanyang Ahos (July 1985-March 1986), the anti-DPA operation in Mindanao. Similar operations in the succeeding years were done in Southern Tagalog (“Oplan Missing Link”), Metro Manila (“Olympia”), Cebu, North Central Mindanao, Cagayan Valley, Leyte, and practically in all regions where the CPP-NPA-NDF operated, resulting in the torture and execution of thousands – most of whom have never been located, let alone returned to their families.
PATH has documented the following torture methods in NPA detention camps: beatings, lacerating the skin with a blade, hanging by the wrists or ankles, rape, sexual molestation and humiliation (e.g., women stripped naked were forced to brawl), clamping and mutilating male and female genitalia with forceps, searing the private parts with molten plastic, water cure, suffocation with plastic bags, denial of food and water; tranquilizers and drugs used as truth serum, like Ativan, Novain, and Demerol; and other methods.
Some modes of execution were: bashing the back of the skull with a wooden club, stabbing with a fixed bayonet or sharpened bamboo stick, breaking the neck (“marine hold”), beheading and disemboweling.
Later on, PATH had also been involved in actual location and exhumation of remains of those who were killed in the purges. So far, we were able to exhume nine remains, all of whom have been identified and returned to their families except one set of remains, which has yet to be properly identified.
And PATH has been calling for the setting up of a “truth commission” for the communist purges. We have yet to see the realization of this.
We have continuously sought the peace negotiators’ agreement to this proposition, arguing that a peace settlement would not be complete without a proper reckoning of past injustices. The Parties found this a difficult proposition at the stage of negotiation – accountability for past violations may get in the way of peace settlements. Nevertheless, PATH has not stopped the call, up to now as both parties under the current administration hammer out details for a possible settlement.
There are many TC examples all over the world. At the end of South Africa’s violent armed conflict against apartheid, they set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that investigated and documented atrocities committed by both the security forces and the African National Congress (ANC) rebels. Meanwhile, the Truth and Justice Commission that was set up after the successful peace settlement in El Salvador did the same. The difference in both models is that the South African one provided for amnesty among the perpetrators if they would give full disclosure. The El Salvador model used the commission’s findings for successful prosecution of the lead perpetrators.
Colombia also intends to set up a TC as part of the peace accord. According to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos: “…the Colombian peace process is the first in the world that has placed the victims and their rights at the center of the solution. This negotiation has been conducted with a heavy emphasis on human rights. And that is something that makes us feel truly proud.
“Victims want justice, but most of all they want to know the truth, and they – in a spirit of generosity – desire that no new victims should suffer as they did.”
The Philippines itself is no stranger to TC types of investigations. Fact-finding commissions have been created to investigate the Ninoy Aquino assassination. There was also the Republic Act (RA) 10368: the “Human Rights Victims Reparation and Recognition Act of 2013,” which established the Human Rights Victims Claims Board (HRVCB) to provide compensation and recognition to the victims of human rights violations during the Marcos dictatorship.
This needs to be expanded, to cover those committed beyond Marcos and martial law, as well as to cover non-State armed groups.
One of the early advocacies of PATH was to create a similar truth commission-type of mechanism specific to the CPP purges. In a paper that argued for its creation and proposed modalities, Atty Jaye dela Cruz made a compelling case, even as she acknowledged the difficulties.
“…(The) issues and problems that make the creation of a truth commission for the purges a formidable challenge, are precisely what make it absolutely crucial.
“When your perpetrators are still outside the pale of the system, high-ranking members in a still-thriving organization known for both its paranoia and its vindictiveness; when the issue of sponsorship is bogged down by political subtext; when truth-seeking is still vulnerable to the vagaries of an ongoing conflict and peace process, when the controversy is one of remote emotional proximity to the larger population even when what is at stake is human rights in its most fundamental sense – then you know that it would be difficult to contemplate a more marginalized class of victims.”
Now there is an opportunity to push the issue back from the margins. It does not have to be a standalone process and focus solely on the victims and survivors of the CPP-NPA-NDF’s violations. The reopening of the communist purges can be part of a larger truth-seeking mechanism that covers both State- and non-State-perpetrated violations. By “larger” I mean to view it through the universal lens of human rights and not through the narrower sense of politics. This is particularly relevant in contemporary times, when the very notion of human rights is taking a beating.
Whatever model to be ultimately adopted, what is important is for the truth-seeking process to happen. This could facilitate the healing process and finally facilitate the long sought-for closure for everyone.